Buzz List for September 25, 2017

The legacy of Rich Melman is concepted restaurants, as shown by reviews for 1920s Paris (Margeaux Brasserie) and 1950s Hollywood (BLVD). Plus how Monk's Pub survives, where to avoid brunch and more

Margeaux Brasserie/Facebook
Tomato tart at Margeaux Brasserie
1. R.J. REGRUNTUS

The King steps down, long live the King! Having made some final moves on the Lettuce Entertain You chessboard, Rich Melman has officially turned over the reins at his legendary restaurant empire at age 75, making son and heir apparent R.J. Melman president of the restaurant group, along with two siblings in supporting roles. (Kevin Brown, who was president, remains CEO, and Dad is still chairman, so what really has happened is anyone’s guess—though it was important enough to send out press releases, anyway.)

In many ways it is impossible to overestimate Melman’s impact on our dining scene. Read about old school dining when Lettuce began in the early 70s, and you have a soupçon of French sophistication atop a wide scene of Greek and Italian supper club and coffee shop dining. Lettuce started with hippie cafes with jokey names (R.J. Grunt’s preserves this era in amber), but soon expanded into fine dining and mid-level contemporary Italian, changing what we ate out as it rode the contemporary Italian wave of the 80s and 90s.

But more than that, it popularized the idea of a restaurant having an underlying concept—a story that you walked into when you went through the door. Scoozi! was a cafe on a busy street in Rome, Brasserie Jo one in Paris, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba one in Spain. Ed Debevic’s was the 50s brought back to life as self-parody, Maggiano’s was the weekly Italian family dinner you never had. It was a lesson that all of our most successful groups now have internalized—look at Boka Group’s or One Off’s arrays of restaurants, and none of them (except maybe Big Star, the Ed Debevic’s of our time) may beat the drum of their concepts as hard as 80s Lettuce. But each of them has an unmistakable identity, which you willingly buy into as you enter.

That said, it must be admitted that Lettuce has been a successful company, but not a leading restaurant group creatively, for a while now. I was talking about this recently with someone, who expressed the idea that when Lettuce sold Corner Bakery for bazillions, it sort of opened their eyes to how much money there really was in the business—and took the thrill out of opening a place with a zany name and a high energy vibe for the fun of it. They’ve also shifted a lot of attention to the mint to be made in Vegas (this is starting to sound like another tale of family succession—”R.J., you can’t talk to a man like Moe Green like that!”). R.J. will prove himself by opening more money-printers like RPM Steak, and at some point Beatrix will get sold for bazillions and go nationwide, and the restaurant press will admire his acumen—but I wonder if there’s a place he has in mind that he wants to open just for the fun of it, and if he does, if we’ll ever see it.

2. MARGEAUX FOR BROKE

Jeff Ruby makes some comments about the prices at Margeaux Brasserie, though I’m inclined to think that when a bowl of bouillabaisse starts with a “5,” you can’t talk about it enough. He finds the 1920s Parisian-style throwback a mixed bag—at its best, “We’ve got to talk about the duck wings à l’orange… Five deep-fried wings, crisp and sticky with a Grand Marnier gastrique, the decadent confit-like meat shredding off the bone in a blaze of gently bitter orange-zest glory, provide pure Neanderthal satisfaction with a veneer of old-school class.”

At its nadir, “My party was most mystified by how Margeaux Brasserie desecrated one of history’s perfect dishes: Dover sole meunière. Instead of preserving the fish’s pristine appeal, Mina’s team sent out a strangely puffy version without the delicate crisp edges, and they topped the fillet with croutons, then waterboarded it with a blunt brown butter and lemon confit sauce so punishing that the white asparagus tucked beneath the fish appeared to be hiding in fear.” Remember what happened to the last place that botched Jeff Ruby’s fish.

3. BLVD AOK W/MS

With all the hotel restaurants Mike Sula has been eating at lately, he seems well-prepared for the swanky American throwback vibe at BLVD, and despite some qualms here and there, he seems pretty impressed: “The challenge for some chefs is to rise above the cliches they’re dealt. Fairly often [Chef Johnny Besch] does. Steak tartare bonded with bone marrow butter and served on a toasted sourdough ‘shingle’ (what all the young whippersnappers call ‘toast’ these days) is a cannibal’s delight. Light, airy brandade croquettes take a dip in umami-swollen, seaweed-infused remoulade. Chubby pink slices of hamachi appear en crudo, with an admirably restrained application of salted plum sauce countered nicely by a plum salt finish.” (Reader)

4. RESTAURANT OWNER KILLS BROTHER

Whistle Pig BBQ was a barbecue place located in the former location of Honey 1 BBQ in Bucktown. It opened in July—and, one presumes, it closed for good as of Friday afternoon, when owner Nestor Soto was arrested for stabbing his brother Ivens Soto to death. (DNAInfo)

5. SOUTH SIDE STARLIGHT

South Side Weekly has its annual best of the south side issue, and needless to say food turns up in many places. I’m not going to cry hosannas for the disappointing Huck Finn Donuts, but happy to learn about Morelos Tacos, a taco concession on Calumet Park beach, to discover the secret gardens of Chinatown (revealed by U of I researchers scanning satellite photos), to learn the history of the southwest side chain Cocula, which I know only for the jokes it prompted on one of the Great Unknown Pizza Quests, and to check out Sara’s Cafe in Woodlawn and Back of the Yards Coffeehouse & Roastery, among others.

6. TOCK TALK

The Tock reservation system works well for who it works well for, but most restaurants don’t have the pent-up demand that makes prepaid, nonrefundable tickets viable. So Tock has been rolling out new models, the latest called Tock Intro, says Crain’s: “The new system offers the prepaid ticketing option Tock first introduced for its elite clients, including New York’s​ Eleven Madison Park and the French​ Laundry in Napa Valley. The idea is that midtier restaurants that still want to rely on free OpenTable reservations for general seating can use Tock Intro to draw attention (and prepaid booking) to a higher-end chef’s table or omakase menu. There’s no monthly fee, but Tock takes 3 percent of the prepaid revenue.”

The most interesting part of the article, though, is in the explanation of why restaurateurs don’t just want to stick with Open Table: “If you have a hankering for Mexican in Logan Square and do a Google search for, say, ‘Quiote reservation,’ the first link to pop up is OpenTable, because the company has paid for a ton of search advertising to optimize its results… Because of OpenTable’s SEO domination, restaurateurs say, they pay crazy-high fees.”

7. ROBERT TAYLOR FARMS

At Crain’s, Fooditor contributor Benji Feldheim writes about a group of urban farmers growing at Legends Farm, a training site for urban farmers through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program, located on land once part of the notorious Robert Taylor Homes: “In fall 2012, the Robert Taylor space was a fenced field of compacted rubble with some grass and weeds. To convert the land for farm use, Windy City Harvest brought in 80,000 square feet of geotextile fabric used to strengthen soil and make it more stable. With the fabric in place, 3,000 cubic yards of compost was spread, followed by cedar and juniper timbers. The following spring, hoop houses and a production area were built. Legends opened with three incubator farmers that sold $33,011 in produce that year. In 2016, six incubator farmers sold $99,910 worth of goods.”

8. MOUSE HUNT

Maggie Hennessy searches City Mouse for signs of the same group’s prowess at Giant and finds some: “The food was mostly worth the wait. The minds behind the lightheartedly Midwestern Giant have a knack for making unlikely pairings taste like they’ve always belonged. A delightful peach kohlrabi salad, with chewy, nutty farro and sharp pecorino tossed in spicy ginger vinaigrette smacks of an instant signature item (it’s on the brunch menu, too). We crunched through thickly battered, dark-golden fried baby artichokes draped in meaty pork ragu redolent of oregano and sprinkled with salty taleggio cheese—a savory and satisfying encapsulation of what I dream Italian-American Sunday dinners to be like.” (Time Out)

9. BRUNCHING OUT

While Chicagoist’s Anthony Todd is on his honeymoon, I subbed for him with a story about where to find brunch-like food without having to actually go eat the pain in the behind that is brunch. Read more here.

10. DEUS IRAE

Could any picture sum up the last half century in Chicago better than the one on Chicago magazine’s article on Monk’s Pub, in which the echt-Germanic pub with its cartoon monk is towered over by a gleaming glass Death Star? The article about one of the old Loop’s last survivors is good too… (Chicago)

11. MARTINI & ROSSI, SAY YES

Should you have a martini with a steak? Nick Kindelsperger explores this question by talking to people at a bunch of steakhouses, learning one startling fact—Gene & Georgetti’s muddles martinis?

12. CELLAR IN THE SKY

Joseph Hernandez visits Italian Village to talk about its cellar full of old rare things at reasonable prices… though in this case, the cellar lives on the third floor of the building. (Tribune)

13. TIP JARRED

Ice cream maven Dana Cree felt roused to write about what’s wrong with tipping at her Facebook page, and if much of it covers ground already plowed, she makes some interesting points.

14. JAMMIN'

Ina Pinkney’s breakfast column visits Jam ‘n’ Honey—which happens to be right across from where there used to be a place called Ina’s—and Cafe Selmarie, though the best part involves breakfast with a Blue Angel. (Tribune)

15. BEET IT

Redeye tries that beet-based bleeding burger, the Impossible Burger, which is now being served at M Burger—though as they note, so much for vegan when it comes standard with cheese.

16. SAN SOO LUNCH PLAN

Korean BBQ fave San Soo Gab San is opening a spot downtown… somewhere. Smart idea for dinner, though I’m not sure how many people are going to want to come back from lunch smelling like that… (Eater)

17. BEVERLY PLAIN

Farewell to an old south side supper club joint, the Beverly Woods, in a piece with more background and texture than is customary for DNAInfo.

WHAT MIKE ATE

Giant has been a favorite—you can read me on it in Air Canada’s magazine this month—but I hadn’t been back in months (after many visits back to back as I proselytized for it). Honestly… I still love the approach, sweet and bitter and hot and punchy all exploding at once, but I have to admit the execution didn’t seem as sharp, with most of the dishes we had that out of balance in some way—tagliatelle with crab too salty, something else too heavy on the lemon zest, broccoli with peach chutney overcooked. Hmm.

I’ve only ever nibbled at Green River, though I admire the previous bar program set up by Julia Momose immensely (another thing I recommended to Canadians). This time I wound up with friends at The Annex, its small side bar (which has something of the intimacy of The Office, at least when it’s not too full), trying things from both the old cocktail program and the new one just now being introduced. The cocktails are a wow—I don’t know that there’s a better mad scientist lab behind the bar anywhere, with rows and rows of ways to alter flavor slightly. And the things we ordered to nosh on—well, ordering a whole roasted duck breast (both halves, legs used elsewhere) isn’t exactly a nosh, but after too many classic-American-clubman dinners in hotels that didn’t wow me, here was finally the perfectly executed old school dish I’d been wanting from them.

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